Sixty Years Later – An Ongoing Nakba
A Conflict About Land
Until today, our delegation has been focused on the West Bank and the Occupation. We heard from the U.N. about the checkpoints, the Separation Wall, and closures. We toured East Jerusalem with ICHAD and learned about the intentional removal of Palestinian residents from their own land. We visited a Israeli settlement and traveled on a “settler only” road. We visited Bil'in and heard about their courageous efforts to change the path of the wall.
Until today, we heard how the Occupation--which began in 1967--led to Israeli human rights violations against Palestinians in the West Bank.
Our trip to Galilee in northern Israel changed everything. Standing on the foundations of Palestinian homes with their previous occupants brought a deeper understanding of this conflict and its origins. We toured two villages on the Israeli side of the Green Line (the border that separates the West Bank and Israel) with the families that were displaced after 1948 by their destruction. These Palestinian families, who have Israeli citizenship, were never permitted to return to their homes when the 1948 war ended. Instead, living just a few miles away, they were forced to watch their homes demolished. Until recently, they were banned from the sites of their former villages and could not maintain the graves of their ancestors. See a photo from the village cemetery here.
Standing with these families, it became clear how much this conflict is about land--not religion. There would be no security reason that would block these Israeli Palestinian families from returning to their villages. There is no reason why the State should prevent families from tending to the graves of their loved ones. Instead, I believe that Israel is fearful of acknowledging the rights of land owners that predate 1948. After all, acknowledging the rights of one Palestinian family to property they owned before the establishment of Israel would set a significant precedent.
We ended the day over dinner with a Palestinian Israeli family that was forced to build illegally on their own property because Israel claimed they no longer owned it. Despite their records, they were threatened with demolition. Earlier in the day, a Palestinian girl urged us to think what we would do if these were "our children". I can't imagine.
I worked twenty years, drank no water,
Twenty years on this good land, sad land,
Had no water, drank no water, no water.
Around his eyes, dry furrows, parched earth –
I know when water will come, the old man says,
When they come for me with a coffin.
Family gathers around his grave,
Coffin rests in the tired land at last,
And a son, wiping tears from his own
Empties a pitcher of water
Upon father’s grave, upon parched earth:
Here’s the water you wanted
All your life, all your life,
Tears soaking the thirsty grave and
The dashed dreams of an old man,
An exile who never got home.
1 June 2008, Ein Hod
After watching “Not on Any Map,”a film about villages in the Galilee where internally displaced” refugees struggle together for water, electricity and human rights.
A Desire to Live in Peace
In our first days of this trip, we met people and saw firsthand the violation of property rights and the prison-like confinement of Palestinians who live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. So house demolitions, the construction of walls and the building of settlements done in the name of security were not new to us. Yesterday, we visited Palestinians outside the occupied territories who are citizens of Israel. Over 20% of Israeli citizens inside Israel proper are Palestinians. As Israeli citizens, they have the color of license plate that permits them to drive on Israeli-only roads and they have other rights that Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem do not have.
We were shocked to learn, however, that many thousands of acres of property have been expropriated or confiscated from Israeli citizens who are Palestinian. We talked with several Palestinian families who were driven from their homes and their farm lands in 1948. They fled to nearby villages and live only a few kilometers from the property for which they have legal title and in several cases this property had been in their families for generations. Thousands of homes have been served with demolition orders. Not unlike in East Jerusalem, these homes were served with demolition orders because they built a home or expanded a home without a building permit. However, building permits are rarely issued to Palestinian citizens of Israel, so after months or years of applications and denials, property owners often build “illegally.” Once they build or expand their homes, they are frequently served with demolition orders. Demolition orders mean that on any day the bulldozer can arrive to destroy their houses. Legal challenges through the Israel court system rarely if ever receive favorable rulings.
Saturday, we met some amazingly resilient and determined Palestinians. They have no desire to kill Jews. They only want their land back so they can farm it or so they can live in their houses without the fear that any day the house may be reduced to rubble. A fifteen year old granddaughter indicated that she would never give up on getting her family’s land back. She was not hostile or revengeful. When asked what she would like to tell President Bush, she simply said to ask him how he would feel if property was taken from his family. We saw Bedouins who were living without any water, electrical, or sewage systems. They were living on a small plot of land that they owned that was between the building of settlement housing units that were coming together to complete a circle. They have refused to move. They have no interest in killing Jews. They simply want to live on their land in peace. See photo here.
This attitude of simply wanting to live in peace was pervasive in the people we saw. Even though new housing developments built by the Israeli government primarily for Jewish residents ring the hills around the town of Sakhnin (evidently to block its development), the people we met were calm and stated in many ways that they only wanted to have what was rightfully theirs. There was every indication that they would be willing to live with the many Jewish Israelis in the area. They seemed willing to discuss how to work out sharing the land that was there. They expressed no opinions that reflected they wanted to drive the Israeli Jews from their homes as they were driven from their homes in 1948 or later. With these kinds of attitudes reflecting courageous use of nonviolent resistance, there is hope that Israelis and Palestinians as well as Jews, Muslims, Druze and Christians can peacefully share the land called “Holy.”
Rights and Refugees: Palestinians in Israel Today
Today could be said to be the first day aligned with the theme of our delegation. Today we dealt head-on with 1948 and the Nakba, the Palestinian word for the catastrophe of being forced off their land. We received a tour of a couple of destroyed Arab villages in the Galilee region. But first we had to get there, and this entailed a two and a half hour drive from the hotel, through the Jordan Valley, to get to the Galilee. Once again our license plates granted us such easy passage through the checkpoints into and out of the West Bank that many on the bus did not even notice that we had gone through them. But the bus ride itself was as enlightening as any meeting or activity we've undergone.
The fact that struck me most from all the explanations given by our guide was as we were passing Israeli settlement kibbutzim north of the Palestinian city of Jericho, with their greenhouses and fertile plots of green in a landscape otherwise completely yellow and beige and tan. We learned that there are significant aquifers underneath this region and that wells, if dug deep enough, are able to tap into this water source and sustain agriculture. The kibbutzim were making good use of this resource, but apparently the Arabs are not permitted to dig wells. Furthermore, the settlements were apparently using up the water resource much faster than the few Arab communities, and would thus exhaust the aquifers in the near future. Add to this various restrictions on selling in or out of Jericho, and that the goods from the kibbutz may be sold in Israel but not the Arab produce, and you have situation which I find difficult to interpret in any way other than a deliberate attempt to create an unviable condition for a specific ethnicity.
This was not the Judaism I was taught. As we were reminded by Rabbis for Human Rights, Judaism does not forbid or even particularly discourage using violence against someone who you know intends to harm you. But I have heard of no justification for strangling the livelihoods of the entire people because of a few individuals from that people who have done - or threaten to do - violence to us.
Immediately upon arriving in Nazareth, we met Abir Kopty. Abir is a very impressive activist who has worked for various Arab-Israeli rights organizations. Because we were a little late, the meeting with this activist was not long. In fact she referred to it more as a briefing. I could not help but be impressed by her easy fluency not only in English but in the subject matter of Arab-Israeli civil and collective rights issues. Abir dwelt on this distinction, and she helped me realize the importance of this categorization.
This is not to say that I was unaware that Arabs were not granted the same rights as Jews in Israel. I have always been aware of the inequality even if I am often ignorant of the particulars. But if you had asked me before this meeting, I would have grouped all the inequalities under civil rights. But while there certainly are improvements necessary in the civil rights of Arab-Israelis, the true source of the institutional inequality could be summarized in the lack of the same collective rights for the Palestinian people.
Jews from abroad can come to Israel and practically without any effort they can receive Israeli citizenship. At the same time, Arab refugees from 1948 are not given any kind of right to return to the lands they used to own in what is now Israel. An Arab from the West Bank or Gaza cannot even receive Israeli citizenship for having Arab-Israeli family. There's apparently a special police unit mean to enforce exactly this policy.
Of course we were not only given examples of institutional discrimination. Street racism is an equally serious issue. On some level it may even be considered the most important obstacle to equal rights and justice and perhaps even peace. If the mood throughout the Israeli population is one of fear and racism, politicians will have little incentive to make bold changes. Israeli contentment with politicians is chronically low anyway, and is quite possibly now lower than ever. This and the general thrust of the conversation/briefing with Abir Kopty has led me to conclude that it is vastly important, perhaps even a prerequisite for peace for positive change and awareness to be raised in Israeli society.
I was impressed by our presenter's sensitivity to the internal divisions and prejudices within Jewish Israeli society, as well as with the coalition building she mentioned between Jewish and Arab Israeli groups to promote equality and cohabitation. This kind of sensitivity, I believe, is crucial on both sides because the fear and rationale behind collective punishment are only possible when the other side seems like a monolith, all directed at your destruction.
After the meeting, we got a tour of a couple of Arab villages destroyed in 1948 by Jewish forces. This was eye-opening for me. I have recently become increasingly aware of the plight of refugees and the Arabs displaced internally within Israel. I had developed an image of the refugee as a depressed old man or woman, dignified but fixated on the loss of their land and intent on passing on their fixation to their children. Meeting the gentlemen who showed us around the two destroyed villages I found people full of humor and understanding, which I did not expect.
I do believe that their need to return to their lands is a fixation, though I have no right to judge them for this. It makes me a little uneasy when they pass this fixation along to the next generations, but I am much less uneasy seeing these refugees in their human form, as elderly men who are fully functioning and not debilitated by a decades-long depression. Again, I could not judge them if they were, they have undergone a serious trauma as I was reminded by the two guides listing off relatives who had been killed in the evacuation of the village. But I am saddened when I see a trauma not only destroy one life, but pass on to others, especially to children. At least now it seems that when it is passed on it is not necessarily in the form of trauma, and that it is possible for both the first and subsequent generations to live functional lives even under the burden of this loss.
Now I just need to find a way to cope with the knowledge that wherever I see a cluster of Sabra (Prickly Pear) cacti in Israel, I am most likely looking at the site of one of the over 500 destroyed Palestinian villages. These cacti were used as divisions between land in old Palestinian villages – and they remain at many village sites, even when the stones and rubble of old structures are often hard to find. See photo here.
The happy part of the evening was being hosted for nothing less than a feast at a tent owned by one of our guides in the destroyed villages. The food was great, we had the chance to relax and unwind, and we experienced Arab hospitality. Where there are moments like this, there must be hope.
Originally posted on this blog.
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